James South was destined for entrepreneurship. Born in Hazard, Ky. and raised in nearby Jackson, Ky., South’s family tree is ripe with entrepreneurial spirit. His great uncle, Richard Jett, began Jett Tours in 1974. His aunt owned a restaurant, as did his grandparents, where he spent many summers washing dishes and learning the business. His mother, Lillian Jett, a retired school teacher, inherited Jett Tours in 2006.
South joined the US Army in 2005 and upon his discharge in 2010, decided to attend school in Lexington, Ky. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Sullivan University and worked his way up the corporate ladder at a national auto parts company.
“The money was great. But I wasn’t happy,” admitted South.
After realizing the corporate world was the wrong career choice, South made the decision to go back to school and earn his culinary degree. Well-established in Central Kentucky and raising two young boys with his wife, Nikki Lynn, an athletic trainer, South felt a pull to move back to Jackson. He wanted his boys to grow up in his hometown.
A phone call from his mother that encouraged him to tour some available property then sparked his interest.
“Seeing that building started it. I knew that I would be coming back after looking at the first empty space. It didn’t work out, but eventually, we found a good location,” South said.
South found a building and opened his own business. “It started out as four walls and a ceiling, but with the support of the community, we turned it into a restaurant.” The restaurant was named ZB’s to honor his maternal grandparents, Zeke and Billie.
Initially, South and his sous chef, Becca White, tried menu options like swordfish and lamb. “They didn’t sell,” South explained. “We landed on a more Southern/regional menu, and people loved it.”
When asked what challenges opening a restaurant in a small town presents, South said, “Local people have very high standards, I like that I know the people I’m serving, but there’s a certain pressure to make sure the food meets those expectations. Ultimately, I think that makes our business better.”
Regarding his mother’s thriving business, Jett Tours, South says, “My mom is my hero. She was absolutely my inspiration and motivation to start my own business. She took a well-established business and morphed it into what it is today – something phenomenal.”
“If you told most people about a touring business based out of Jackson, they’d laugh. But people here in Eastern Kentucky can arrange travel anywhere with a local company. They’re taking trips to Aruba, Alaska, New York, Washington DC…and the business has grown so substantially she’s planning to expand with a branch based out of Northern Ky.”
Jett Tours originally catered to an older crowd. “It was mostly people in the retirement community who were able to take advantage of traveling.” However, the internet played a pivotal role in redefining Jett Tour’s customer base.
“The internet is huge for both of our businesses. For my restaurant, social media has been extremely important, bringing people in from as far as Indiana. Jett Tours originally served Breathitt and five surrounding counties, now Mom serves the entire state of Kentucky and her customer base has broadened. Her travelers range from eighteen to eighty! Local people are able to experience things they used to only read about in text books.”
In addition to the internet, both businesses benefit from local tourism. Jackson sits close to both Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Park. Rough estimates claim rock climbers alone spend more than $3.5 million dollars every year in the area, not including hikers, paddlers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
“Spring and summer should be huge for us here because of local tourism. We will have our brochures in other businesses or people will find us on social media when they’re planning their trip here and we hope to see a lot of new faces in addition to the familiar ones.”
Broadband connectivity and tourism are two of the seven goals outlined in SOAR’s Regional Blueprint for a 21st Century Appalachia.
South has no regrets about moving home and opening his own business. “I want to be part of seeing our community grow. I want my kids to grow up and say, ‘there’s plenty to do right here. I don’t need to move somewhere else.’”
He is inspired by what he sees in the community, “I see a lot of local businesses popping up and small business owners trying to make Jackson just a little bit bigger.”
His advice to anyone considering starting their own business in Appalachia Kentucky starts with, “Do it wholeheartedly. You only live once. Put everything you have into what you believe.” He ends with, “Don’t let fear be your driving force. Making your own way is worth the risk.”
For more information on ZB’s restaurant click HERE
For Jett Tours’ social media click HERE
To visit Jett Tours’ website click HERE